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Racism and White Supremacy are deeply entrenched in Grand Rapids: Seeing the World through the eyes of Dr. King Part III

January 25, 2016

This is part 3 of a three part series in honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All three articles are based on what King referred to as the Evil Triplets of militarism, capitalism and racism in his 1967 speech, Beyond Vietnam. Part I dealt with militarism, Part II on capitalism, thus Part III will focus on racism.

As we have noted in the previous 2 articles in this three part series, Dr. King’s understanding of the world evolved over time. The great orator for the Black Freedom Struggle went from fighting for desegregation to fighting institutionalized racism in all its forms, most notably in economic policy, social policy and through state violence.Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.21.45 AM

In the remaining years before his assassination King didn’t sound as much like The Dreamer as he did a Prophet. And as a prophet, King did not shy away from calling out the systems of power and oppression in the US, particularly the system of White Supremacy.

In his 1967 speech entitled, Which Way Its Soul Shall Go, Dr. King stated what you see next to his picture.

These kind of assessments were the result of King coming to terms with how deeply entrenched White Supremacy was in America. Once King moved his efforts to the north, he began to see more clearly how racism was part of the very fabric of white society.

Reflecting on the struggle against segregation in the south, Dr. King had some very keen observations in a speech he gave in Canada in 1967, entitled, Impasse in Race Relations. King states:

Negroes were outraged by inequality; their ultimate goal was freedom. Most of the white majority were outraged by brutality; their goal was improvement, not freedom nor equality. When Negroes could use public facilities, register and vote in some areas of the South, find token educational advancement, again in token form find new areas of employment, it brought the Negro a sense of achievement, but it brought to the whites a sense of completion. When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend the second rung of the ladder, a firm resistance from the white community developed. This resistance characterized the second phase, which we are now experiencing. In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a stinging white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably it was outright resistance. The arresting of the limited forward progress by white resistance revealed the latent racism that was deeply rooted in US society.Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.30.55 AM

It seems pretty clear that what King is pointing out is that white society was only willing to allow for blacks to have limited access or limited, almost token equality. Such an astute analysis by King in 1967 is equally important for today.

We are told over and over that black Americans have gained full equality and opportunity in the US. Indeed, with the election of a black president, we are now living in a post-racial era of America. The only problem is, most black Americans are as bad off (or maybe worse) now as they were in 1967. If we look at social indicators, one can see, as King stated, that racism is deeply rooted in US society.

The data on racism in West Michigan

Recent data on the percentage of those living in poverty in Grand Rapids is quite alarming. based on census data for 2014, an estimated 26.7% of people in Grand Rapids are experiencing poverty. These numbers are proportionately higher for blacks and latinos/as. Kids Count data says that 23% of children overall are experiencing poverty, but for black children that number is 47%. 

When looking at the number of blacks in Kent County, the census data says that 10.4% of the population are black. However, when one looks at the percentage of blacks in the Kent County Jail, the number is significantly higher. Poverty is certainly one of the contributing factors in a disproportionate number of blacks in the Kent County Jail, but so is the practice of police targeting the neighborhoods where the majority of blacks live in Grand Rapids. 

Last year there was some sobering data released on the worst cities for blacks to live in and Grand Rapids was one of the worst. The research looked at income and unemployment in the Grand Rapids area and found the following: 

The typical black household in Grand Rapids earns $25,495 annually, less than half of the $57,186 the typical white household earns and also about $10,000 less than the $35,481 the typical American black household earns in a year. The unemployment rate for blacks is 13%.

When one looks at the numbers around infant mortality, the data shows that Black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die in the first year. According to one report, “The African American infant mortality rate in Grand Rapids is just slightly better than the overall rate in the Gaza Strip.”  The same disparity exists in other health-related areas, such as heart disease and obesity.

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In addition, the recent practices of Mercantile Bank, which denied loans to blacks in Grand Rapids and the gentrifying impact on the black community in numerous parts of the city, also demonstrates how deeply entrenched racism and White Supremacy is in Beer City.

Based on the data, it is safe to say that if King were alive today and visiting Grand Rapids, he would most likely still say, “I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.”

Such an assessment flies in the face of all the claims about diversity and inclusion that many whites in Grand Rapids are quick to claim. It is quite possible that white society in Grand Rapids is in denial about the realities of racism and white supremacy or they recognize that in order to maintain power and privilege the racial disparities that exist must remain in place.

I would argue the later. Therefore, if white people are serious about ending racism and white supremacy in Grand Rapids, then we need to put our energy towards dismantling the power and privilege that white people have in this city.

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